Oscar Documentary Shorts: Meet the 'Cavedigger'

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Come Oscar season, all cinephiles are ready to campaign for their favorite film. Are you Team Gravity or Team 12 Years a Slave? Jennifer Lawrence or Lupita Nyong’o? While movie fans have likely seen all the big nominees by this point, there are smaller categories where even some film enthusiasts may not be as well-versed. Leading up to the Oscars, EW will tell you all about one often-overlooked category: Best Documentary Short. Come back each day this week for a look at one of the nominees, and impress your Oscar party with your knowledge when the category appears on Sunday’s broadcast.

Today: Cavedigger, directed by Jeffrey Karoff
Many have a clear-cut idea of what makes a masterpiece artist. They think of Michaelangelo, or Picasso – and probably don’t think of a man who has spent the past 29 years digging elaborate works of art into the inside of caves. But, as the aptly titled Cavedigger shows, works of art by Ra Paulette are exactly what these caves are best described as. Each creation — a cathedral-like art cave in the sandstone cliffs of Northern New Mexico —  takes Paulette years to complete, and each is a masterwork. But Paulette often runs into problems with patrons who have commissioned caves but end the project due to artistic differences.

“I wanted to do something more than make a film that showed or broadcast some artist’s work,” Karoff explained about the film, “I always hope that in art the art speaks for itself. But what I began to understand, when I got to know Ra better, is that the struggle of someone who is obsessive as he is living his dream are real. And they’re substantial.”

You found a really interesting guy. Can you tell me a little about how you found Ra?
Absolutely. I have a place in New Mexico that I’ve had for over 10 years that I go to vacation. When I was first getting into the community I met two people who said, ‘Oh. We’re having a cave made on our property. Would you like to see it?’ And that’s the kind of invitation that you don’t say no to! I had visions like most people have of a hole in the mountain. They took me to their property and the wilderness behind their house and suddenly there is a door in the mountain and we walked through that door and suddenly there was this glorious space, like nothing I’d ever seen before.

How did you convince Ra to be a part of this project? 
I think he had some trepidations but we have a mutual friend who lives in the town, Candice, and she thought it was a terrific idea. So she talked to him and said, ‘You should really do this, with Jeffrey.’ After that it wasn’t hard for me.

How long did you spend with him?
I shot over a period of two and a half years. And this was done on sporadic visits to New Mexico, because I live in Los Angeles. So there were long periods that transpired between visits. I also left him a time-lapsed camera because the progress of the cave was very slow. And of course he was there every day. So I showed him how to use it so he shot some time-lapsed sequences that showed the development of his current project, which are used in the film. He has a credit as one of the camera people.

What about this story made you decide it could be a good film?
I wanted to do something more than make a film that showed or broadcast some artist’s work. I always hope that in art the art speaks for itself. But what I began to understand, when I got to know Ra better, and Ra opened up to me, is that the struggles of someone who is as obsessive as he is living his dream are real. And they’re substantial. Most of us are used to compromise. And compromise actually gets you something, it gets you family, and money and material goods and recognition. And Ra is an uncompromising person. And what he gets for that is this extraordinary output of art. But there’s [a trade off].

What surprised you most about Ra, as you got to know him?
I think what surprised me most was his ability to let go of disappointment and failure. That’s what motivated me start making the film. After he had an accident in one of caves where two years of his work came to an end, within a week he was already enthusiastically talking about his next project. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody like that. And it certainly didn’t reflect me. I think I would have had my head in my hands for quite a while. But he was ready to move on. And genuinely so.

Has he seen the finished film?
Yes. I asked him if he wanted to see it [by himself first]. He said, ‘No no, I trust you. I think it’s going to be really good.’ And he invited 50 of his friends to see it. That was an extraordinary night. Most of the time I was sitting behind him and watching him rather than the movie. I was nervously seeing what his reaction was, and he looked pretty delighted. In part what he was so excited about was that somebody had captured his process. Here’s a guy who works alone all day long on a mountainside and in the 28 or 29 years he’s been doing this, no one had ever documented how he does what he does, so he was particularly pleased about that.

Have you kept up with him at all?
Oh yeah, I talk to him.

[SPOILER ALERT] When the film ends, Ra is working on a cave that will take him 10 years to complete. How is that going now?
Let’s see, he’s about 4 years into it now. I think middle of the fourth year. It’s an extremely ambitious project. It’s not a single cave, it’s a complex of caves some of which join up. He has a vision to make this into a place where emotionally disturbed teenagers would come cause be believes that there is something about being inside the earth that is fundamentally enriching. He has a long way to go  with that, but it’s also come a long ways. According to his own schedule, he’s not even at the midpoint, but I think as you learned from the film, he’s not the best judge of time.

How did you got started in documentary work?
I come from a commercial directing background. And a lot of  my commercial work is in real people, which is basically a documentary milieu. And I’ve done a lot of fundraising films for philanthropic foundations (like Robin Hood foundation), and I think fundamentally my love of capturing real stories comes from the fact that I was an amateur photographer my whole life, and I have a big body of work capturing my family. Every year I put together a compilation of those photographs. So there’s a lot of story and progress in that. I have a love of the idea of capturing people in ordinary moments.

Cavedigger is now in theaters alongside the other Best Documentary Short nominees. It’s also to available on Video on Demand and to rent on vimeo.

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